The Self-Sufficiency Standard

 What is the Self-Sufficiency Standard?

The Self-Sufficiency Standard defines the amount of income necessary to meet basic needs (including taxes) without public subsidies (e.g., public housing, food stamps, Medicaid or child care) and without private/informal assistance (e.g., free babysitting by a relative or friend, food provided by churches or local food banks, or shared housing). The family types for which a Standard is calculated range from one adult with no children, to one adult with one infant, one adult with one preschooler, and so forth, up to two-adult families with six teenagers.

​ Why was the Self-Sufficiency Standard developed?

The Self-Sufficiency Standard was created in the mid-1990s by Dr. Diana Pearce, who at that time was Director of the Women and Poverty Project at Wider Opportunities for Women. The Standard was intended initially as a performance measure for the goal of “self-sufficiency” in federal job training programs (now known as WIA, the Workforce Investment Act program). It was a measure that provided realistic and detailed data on what clients individually needed to be self-sufficient. First calculated for Iowa in 1996, it experienced a major expansion with funding by the Ford Foundation in the early 2000s, and today, the Standard can be found in 38 states and the District of Columbia. 

​ How does the Self-Sufficiency Standard differ from the Federal Poverty Measure?

First conceived nearly five decades ago by Molly Orshansky, the official federal poverty level has now become out-of-date.

The Official Poverty Measure (OPM) is based on USDA food budgets that meet minimal nutritional standards. Because families in the 1950s spent an average of one-third of their income on food, it was assumed that multiplying the food budget by three would result in an amount that would be adequate to meet other basic needs as well. Since its creation, the OPM has only been updated for inflation. OPM thresholds reflect the number of adults and children, but they do not vary by age of children, nor by place. Read more on the Official Poverty Measure and the Supplemental Poverty Measure here.

In contrast…

  • The Self-Sufficiency Standard is based on ALL major budget items faced by working adults, not just food. These basic needs include housing, child care, food, health care, transportation, taxes, and miscellaneous costs.
  • The Self-Sufficiency Standard calculates the most recent local or regional costs of each basic need. Accounting for regional or local variation is particularly important for housing because housing costs vary widely (e.g., the most expensive areas of the country, such as Manhattan, can cost four times as much as in the least expensive areas, such as Mississippi, for equivalent size units).
  • The Self-Sufficiency Standard varies costs by age groups of children (infants, preschoolers, school agers, and teenagers). This is especially important for child care, which varies substantially by age.
  • The Self-Sufficiency Standard reflects modern family practices, and assumes that all adults (whether married or single) work full-time. Thus the Standard includes the employment-related costs of transportation, taxes, and child care (when needed). (Note that the Federal Poverty Level assumes a two-parent household with a stay-at-home parent, or single parents relying on welfare or family support. Therefore work-related expenses such as child care, taxes, and transportation are not considered).
  • The Self-Sufficiency Standard includes the net effect of federal and state taxes and tax credits, as well as any local taxes and tax credits.

The Standard’s real-world assumptions allow the costs of all basic needs—not just food—to vary over time and across geographic locations. With this up-dated and detailed approach, the Standard is able to develop a realistic measurement of the income requirements for 472 different family types across each county in a given state.

​ How is the Self-Sufficiency Standard Calculated?

The goal for creating the Self-Sufficiency Standard is to calculate the amount needed to meet each basic need at a minimally adequate level, without public or private assistance, and to do so in a way that makes the Standard as consistent and accurate as possible, yet varied by geography and family composition. In selecting data sources, to the maximum extent possible, the data used in the Self-Sufficiency Standard meet the following criteria

  • collected or calculated using standardized or equivalent methodology nationwide;
  • obtained from scholarly or credible sources, such as the U.S. Census Bureau;
  • set at the level that meets a given need at a minimally adequate level, usually by or for a government aid agency;
  • updated regularly (preferably annually or biennially);
  • and geographically and/or age-specific, as appropriate.

The Self-Sufficiency Standard is now calculated for over 400 family types ranging from one adult with no children, to one adult with one infant, one adult with one preschooler, and so forth, up to two-adult families with six teenagers.

The Self-Sufficiency Standard assumes adult household members work full time and therefore includes all major costs associated with employment for adult household members (i.e., taxes, transportation, and child care for families with young children). A more detailed description can be found here.

​ How can the Self-Sufficiency Standard be used?

The Self-Sufficiency Standard is currently being used to better understand issues of income adequacy, to create and analyze policy, and to help individuals striving to meet their basic needs. Community organizations, academic researchers, policy institutes, legal advocates, training providers, community action agencies, and state and local officials, among others are using the Standard. Click here for a list of the ways the Standard has been used.

​ Get a Self-Sufficiency Standard for Your State

The Self-Sufficiency Standard has been calculated for 38 states. To find out if a Standard has been calculated for your state click here. To find out information about creating a Standard for your state or to update an existing Standard, please contact Dr. Diana Pearce at 206-616-2850 or pearce@uw.edu.